Every year for the past three years New Jersey Children’s Foundation* has commissioned the progressive polling firm Change Research to measure the opinions of registered Newark voters on issues relevant to the city’s public education system. The voters have spoken: this new data, released this morning, shows that 62% of the 431 polled believe that public charter schools are “an important part of the public school landscape,” that “charter schools help, not harm, public education in the city,” and–-by a two-to-one margin—voters prefer to cast their ballots for mayoral candidates who “support the expansion of charter schools.”
Herein lies a possible quandary for Mayor Ras Baraka as he contemplates his campaign for a third term (Newark votes for mayor in May 2022) and possibly even a gubernatorial run in 2025: his favorable ratings—currently at an enviable 60%-17%–depend largely on parents who support charter schools. Yet Baraka is umbilically tied to Newark Superintendent Roger León, who appears to revel in his vocation as the city’s Chief Charter-hater. (Since the state ended its 22-year takeover of the district three years ago the school board officially appoints the superintendent but in real life the mayor has much control over the composition of the school board.)
More worrisome for Baraka, the percentage of Newark voters who say education in Newark is “on the right track” fell by almost 20 percentage points, from 42 percent in 2020 to 24 percent in 2021, with many voters seemingly shifting to “undecided” status over the last year.
Sure, there’s a pandemic and district schools seem rooted in an endless loop of lengthy closures sprinkled with occasional in-school instruction.
Yet Baraka needs to pay attention.
After all, Newark has become a kind of North Star for school districts hell-bent on improvement, largely due to the growth of charter schools and a partnership among all city public schools, traditional and charter. This 2015 analysis found that Newark is home to more “beat-the-odds public schools than any city in America, earning the title of “best-performing urban district in the country.” A 2017 Harvard study found that the 62% increase in Newark student literacy was due to students transferring from lower-performing schools to higher-performing schools. This 2020 study from Boston University found that “attending a Newark participating charter school has a larger effect than 80 percent of other educational interventions that have been recently studied using an experimental design.” A 2021 Stanford University study confirmed that Newark students–across both the traditional and charter sector –-are posting learning gains that outpace New Jersey’s best-in-the-nation public school system.
Currently 37% (20,500) of Newark public school students attend charter schools. Another 8,100 are on wait lists.
“For three years in a row–and even amidst a pandemic–support for Newark’s public charter schools has reached incredibly high marks,” said Kyle Rosenkrans, Executive Director of the New Jersey Children’s Foundation. “This is a testament to the hard work and dedication of many city leaders who have sought alliance, harmony and collaboration amongst all public schools in the city,” he added. “However, the downward trend in right-track numbers suggests that, in this pandemic, voters are increasingly moving to the sidelines, waiting to see how leaders respond.”
How will they respond?
That’s where it gets complicated for Baraka. He is dependent on the votes of charter school parents yet has a mixed record on charter school support. He bestowed accolades on former Newark superintendent and charter-supporter Chris Cerf and declared during his first campaign that parents (i.e., voters) “need excellence in both our traditional public schools and in our charter schools.” Yet he also has an alliance with current superintendent Roger León who casts counterfactual aspersions on the city’s charter schools— and, by extension, 37% of Newark families (who, it’s said, include his own relatives).
Where will Baraka land on parent public school choice?
Maybe he should listen to parents.
“This poll validates what I see every day when organizing Newark parents,” said Jasmine Morrison, parent organizer and founder of Unapologetic Parents, an organization that advocates for better school options and equity in education. “Newark families trust that in public charter schools, their children will be given every opportunity to achieve their dreams. As more and more parents become unsure that Newark public schools are on the right track, families will be looking for leadership that supports our right to choose the best public school for our children.”
Here are some additional polling results:
* Brightbeam, which supports NJ Education Report, is a grantee of NJ Children’s Foundation.